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A framework, or software framework, is a platform for developing software applications. It provides a foundation on which software developers can build programs for a specific platform. For example, a framework may include predefined classes and functions that can be used to process input, manage hardware devices, and interact with system software. This streamlines the development process since programmers don't need to reinvent the wheel each time they develop a new application.

A framework is similar to an application programming interface (API), though technically a framework includes an API. As the name suggests, a framework serves as a foundation for programming, while an API provides access to the elements supported by the framework. A framework may also include code libraries, a compiler, and other programs used in the software development process.

Several different types of software frameworks exist. Popular examples include ActiveX and .NET for Windows development, Cocoa for Mac OS X, Cocoa Touch for iOS, and the Android Application Framework for Android. Software development kits (SDKs) are available for each of these frameworks and include programming tools designed specifically for the corresponding framework. For example, Apple's Xcode development software includes a Mac OS X SDK designed for writing and compiling applications for the Cocoa framework.

In many cases, a software framework is supported natively by an operating system. For example, a program written for the Android Application Framework will run on an Android device without requiring other additional files to be installed. However, some applications require a specific framework in order to run. For example, a Windows program may require Microsoft .NET Framework 4.0, which is not installed on all Windows machines (especially PCs running older versions of Windows). In this case, the Microsoft .NET Framework 4 installer package must be installed in order for the program to run.

NOTE: While frameworks generally refer to broad software development platforms, the term can also be used to describe a specific framework within a larger programming environment. For example, multiple Java frameworks, such as Spring, ZK, and the Java Collections Framework (JCF) can be used to create Java programs. Additionally, Apple has created several specific frameworks that can be accessed by OS X programs. These frameworks are saved with a .FRAMEWORK file extension and are installed in the /System/Library/Frameworks directory. Examples of OS X frameworks include AddressBook.framework, CoreAudio.framework, CoreText.framework, and QuickTime.framework.

Updated: March 7, 2013

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